The bank of Mom and Dad

Like many comfortable parents of millennials, Jenny and Steven Lagos want to help their children get established as homeowners.

Both daughters, 37 and 35, are successful and live in San Francisco where astronomical home prices spike wildly in bidding wars. It is an expensive place to live, but neither daughter has plans to leave. “Once our grandchildren were born, we thought it would be so great if our kids could have a place to live [that they owned],” said Jenny Lagos, whose older daughter and husband have two young sons. “So we thought if they were willing to go in [together] on a duplex, they could afford it.”

So the retired couple secured a home equity line of credit on their San Diego house. They hoped to assist with the hardest home-buying stepping stone — the down payment. Their daughter and her husband, and their younger, single daughter, prequalified jointly for a mortgage in the mid-$900,000 range. The trio looked for a duplex, but right-priced duplexes were selling weeks later for up to $200,000 over the asking price. They are resigned to renting for now. Still, the Lagoses are keeping their home-equity line of credit, just in case the housing market takes a dive — even though Jenny Lagos acknowledged that’s unlikely. “It’s pretty laughable when you talk about the market going up and down in San Francisco,” she said.

More millennials (ages 23 to 38) are tapping their parents’ resources for help with a mortgage down payment because scraping up enough is an enormous challenge. Young adults have some unique financial disadvantages: They have lower incomes than baby boomers had as young adults, according to a Federal Reserve data analysis conducted by the nonprofit group Young Invincibles. Most of them also have skimpier assets, particularly those who are burdened by student loan debt. Indeed, just 30 percent of millennials are current homeowners, a historic low for the under-35 demographic, according to a recent Harvard University study.

Additionally, slow wage growth and a high cost of living makes squirreling away enough cash for a down payment next to impossible for many first-time homebuyers. Then there are the twin challenges of housing prices still rising year over year — though the pace has slowed — and higher mortgage interest rates that make buying a first home more expensive. Many millennials are waiting for the housing market to cool off before attempting to jump in.

“To put things in perspective, the median housing price in Pasadena is $800,000, but nationally the median housing price is $220,000, “ said Earl Jordan Yaokasin, CEO of Wealtharch Investment Services in Pasadena. “So Pasadena housing prices are about four times as much as the national average. But the income of millennials is not four times as much as the average national income. That is what is causing the affordability problem.” As a result, many millennials either have to borrow from their parents or have their parents cover the down payment outright, said Yaokasin, who is also a chartered financial analyst.

Home buyers typically need to put down 20 percent of the purchase price for conventional loans (more than 60 percent of buyers use a conventional loan) and pay closing costs of 2 to 5 percent of the home purchase price, said Yaokasin. A growing number of mortgage loan borrowers are making smaller down payments that range from 5 to 10 percent of a home purchase price; borrowers putting down less than 20 percent have to pay Primary Mortgage Insurance (or PMI), according to, an information website exploring renting versus buying and the mortgage process. Millennial buyers need to factor in the additional costs of property insurance and property taxes when considering the entire cost, said Yoakasin.

But with high rents and payments for a car, insurance and gas, just saving for a 20 percent down payment on an $800,000 house — that would amount to $160,000 — is an incredibly difficult challenge. “Two-thirds of people I speak with who are millennials have debt and their saving habits are not great,” he said.

So many millennials turn to their parents for help. More than 26 percent of borrowers got help from a relative to make a down payment from September 2017 to 2018, up from 22 percent in 2011, according to the Federal Housing Administration’s 2018 annual report. The FHA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, insures lending institutions against riskier loans. First-time homebuyers with imperfect credit often secure FHA loans because they cannot qualify for standard loans that require a good credit history. Likewise, FHA homebuyers can put down as little as 3.5 percent of the home price, compared to conventional mortgage loans that require 20 percent. Riskier borrowers now make up about one-tenth of all home loans, according to the FHA.

Enter Mom and Dad. “Parents who want to help their adult children should really talk to an advisor before they do it,” said Neal Frankle, a certified financial planner at Wealth Resources Group in Westlake who specializes in guiding millennial clients. “You have to look at the whole situation, and there is no single, right decision for every situation,” added Frankle, who also counsels millennials in his blog. “But the best way to do it is to have the children make payments immediately on the loan; the second is to defer payments until they get settled, maybe in 10 years, and the third is to make a gift, the worst alternative versus a loan.”

Unless parents are willing to gift it freely with absolutely no expectations, they should reconsider bankrolling the down payment, said Frankle, who is the father of three daughters, two of whom are millennials. If you are not clear about expectations, he notes, it could open the door to resentments and other family problems. .

Kathy Miles, a real estate agent for Keller Williams in Pasadena, has helped a number of millennials buy their first house in the past year. In her experience, young doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants or tech workers did not tap their parents for a down payment — but they did move back in with their parents until they’d saved enough to pay for it themselves. “I have worked with six millennials in the last 12 months and about half needed help from their parents and half did not,” said Miles, 31, who owns a house with her husband and bought it without parental assistance. “Two needed help with the down payment and those parents also cosigned onto the loan. The third millennial assumed the house from her parents who had dementia. But all of my friends who purchased a house in their 20s did get help from their parents.”

Homebuyers who need help with a down payment have been viewed as riskier because they have less of their own hard-earned cash invested in the property. If home prices drop, jobs are lost or some other financial calamity hits, the thinking is that buyers assisted with a down payment are quicker to walk away because the loss is less painful. In contrast, some lenders and financial advisors think that getting assistance from parents or a relative makes the buyer feel a sense of moral duty to protect their family’s investment. The evidence is mixed. Loan tracking data from the FHA that followed loans in 2010–2011 found that 7.6 percent of loans involving family assistance with the down payment are not in default for 90 days or more. That is less than the 9.3 percent of buyers who got down-payment help from an unrelated entity or the government. Only 5.2 percent of buyers who received no help with a down payment were delinquent on their FHA loans.

The big picture? It’s a good idea for parents to help their millennial kids — assuming they can afford to and the kids are responsible, said Frankle. But it is also a good idea to check in with a financial advisor before doing so. “It is better than waiting to die to give it to them, but you have to be sure that it does not create the wrong value,” he said. “From a relationship and financial basis, you are better off to make it a loan, but if that is not viable, then do it, let go and forget about it.” 

Cookie Fever

So far, in my ongoing attempt to follow and observe the National Day Calendar, I have concluded that March is a strange and cruel month. Directly following Awkward Moments Day (March 18) is National Let’s Laugh Day (March 19). Everything You Do is Right Day comes after we must suffer through Everything You Do Is Wrong Day (March 15 and 16). There is the bad-luck-taunting Open Your Umbrella Indoors Day (March 13), and the dismissive Get Over It Day (March 9). Food holidays are not much better. Cheese Doodle Day (March 5), Taters Day (not potatoes, but “taters” — March 31), Cold Cuts Day (March 3) and Chip ’n’ Dip Day (March 23). This is not the month to focus on healthy eating. At least Corned Beef and Cabbage Day coincides with Saint Patrick’s Day.

The one day I did get excited about, though, is March 12, Girl Scout Day. I assume it is timed to coincide with the annual cookie sales. I had never heard of it but will gladly celebrate. It is not the birthday of our founder, Juliette Gordon Lowe (which every good scout knows is on Halloween), but rather the day in 1912 of the first organized troop meeting, of 18 girls in Savannah, Georgia.

I have a long and nostalgic history with the Girl Scouts. I followed the example of my mother, who cherished her memories as a scout. As was the case with her, all my closest friends were scouts with me. My leader was my friend Kathy’s mom, and it was through her that I learned to love camping. She taught us to light a fire with a spindle and bow, identify poison oak and make tea out of manzanita bark and a salad out of dandelion greens. Sure, we had s’mores; but more important, we learned to make doughboys — ready-to-bake biscuit dough on a stick, browned over the fire, then rolled in melted butter and cinnamon sugar. We went backpacking and horseback riding, learned archery and kayaking and discovered that sliding down a dirt hillside is easier on your jeans if you ride on cardboard.   

We were a diverse group — African-American, Jewish, Asian, Arab, Latina  — and from elementary school to junior high we were thick as thieves. If not for scouts I would probably never have gotten to know them. And although by high school our interests had changed (hello, boys!), we all remained friendly. I’m still in touch with some of them, and we all share great memories of that time. So you bet I signed up my girls when they were little, and I jumped at the chance to be a leader. But it wasn’t the same for them. I tried getting them jazzed about the outdoors, but the camping trips we took were never as miraculous as the ones I remembered from my childhood. It was always too hot, or too cold, or too dirty, or too windy. The thrill of fireside skits, lanyards and tie-dyed T-shirts wore off for them fast. I like to blame the age of the Internet, but in reality I just wasn’t as good at selling these activities as my leader had been. 

The one thing they did love, though, was selling cookies. Cookie time was their favorite time of year. They loved setting up tables in front of stores. If we were lucky, we would get the coveted Friday and Saturday night Blockbuster Video spot, which was the most profitable cookie-sales spot in town. Rain or shine, my troop was great at pressure sales. They made up cookie songs and cheers to entertain the shoppers and danced in cookie costumes, like a giant Thin Mint mascot. (This was a favorite costume, which they would fight over routinely.) I believe they gained some skills over the years, like rising above rude people, avoiding creepy ones and working together as a team to meet financial goals. 

And they definitely had financial goals, though it was not to secure funds for our troop activities. They were all about the “incentive prizes.” Good sales could get you dolls, T-shirts, key chains, beach towels, backpacks (I still have many of these items floating around my house) and the coveted trip to Disneyland, which required selling at least 500 boxes (yeah, we did that). Some of the girls in my troop were ambitious, but mostly they were good at talking their parents into selling at the office. My husband was hands-down the best seller in my troop. 

The cookie sales began in 1917 as a way to finance troop activities, and it continues to be thus. In 1922 American Girl magazine published a simple sugar-cookie recipe for Girl Scouts to bake at home and sell to neighbors. By the 1930s demand was high, and the girls had trouble keeping up with the demand, resulting in the first commercially baked cookies in 1934. Due to food rationing during World War I, the girls raised money by selling calendars. When my mother was a scout in the 1950s there were three flavors (shortbread, chocolate mint and peanut butter), and boxes sold for a quarter. When my girls were selling in the 2000s, there were nine flavors that sold for $4 a box (customers were outraged). Today there are 12 varieties (availability depends on where you live), including gluten-free and non-GMO varieties, and they sell for $5 to $6. If you don’t have any girls in your area, you can get them online now through the official Girl Scout website (or on Amazon, for a substantial markup).

Scouting is not perfect, nor is the cookie sale. And while I have many problems with it (too much packaging, too much focus on prizes, more money spent on the sale than on the girls), I still think the program upholds Juliette Gordon Lowe’s vision — empowering little girls. She started the program before the 19th Amendment — before girls could feasibly wear pants. Sure, girls today are less likely to go camping. Then again, they are more likely to go to robotics camp, and I think Juliette would be fine with that. ||||

Vintage visions re-created

When 10-year-old Bobby Green arrived in Los Angeles from his native Oklahoma, he fell instantly in awestruck love with the city he describes as “a giant movie set.” He recalls thinking the palm trees were fake and admiring the Hollywood sign aglow at night; he especially loved visiting the iconic Tail O’ the Pup hot-dog stand, musing all the while that so much of the city was “built to entertain, be wacky and crazy.”

Now 48, the Altadena resident is the cofounder and lead designer of the 1933 Group, a prominent L.A. hospitality company that has created more than a dozen nightlife hotspots around town since its inception in 1999. Over the years, Green and his partners, Dimitri Komarov and Dmitry Liberman, have left their mark on such popular watering holes as the barrel-shaped Idle Hour in North Hollywood, Bigfoot Lodge in Los Feliz (their first establishment) and Highland Park’s La Cuevita and Highland Park Bowl. Now the designers are shifting their focus toward restoring classic properties like L.A.’s Formosa Café and the Tail O’ the Pup to their former glory.

“I was going to go to [Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design] to study environmental design in the late ’80s, but I was given the opportunity to take over a coffeehouse I was working at,” says Green, who shares his Altadena home with his fiancé. “We took over the tiny coffeehouse and art gallery called Cacao, in West Hollywood, and that became my college because I learned how to grow a small business.

“It’s how I learned the hospitality business, and I came up with the concept of Bigfoot Lodge because I wanted to do something in L.A. that didn’t exist,” he continues. “It was kind of like a movie set that takes people away from their daily lives, and I figured a log cabin motif was the perfect juxtaposition to the postmodern city we live in.”

The next step for Green was finding the right investors for his inventive concepts. To that end, he created a concept book detailing his ideas, which a mutual friend passed along to the men who became his partners. The trio opened the Lodge in 1999, meeting instant success. It became such a hip spot that Drew Carey sang karaoke there with fellow cast members of his former improv comedy TV series, Whose Line Is It Anyway? It even inspired the 2008 Jim Carrey movie Yes Man to set a scene in a full-size replica of the Atwater Village bar.

While his partners are also occupied running their Komarov clothing brand, carried in Nordstrom stores nationwide, Green devotes himself to all kinds of vintage Americana. He collects and rides classic hot rods and motorcycles, owns a specialty motorcycle and collectibles store called Old Crowe Speed Shop in Burbank and scours the countryside for one-of-a-kind vintage pieces he can restore or repurpose for his home or the various bars operated by the 1933 Group.

“The business is constantly evolving,” says Green, the son of a successful artist who specialized in working with stained glass from abandoned churches. “There are always new trends and fashions, and obviously the whole craft cocktail movement, so you have to keep up with the times but also stay true to yourself in the business — what you do and who you are. One thing is how strong our identity is through everything we’ve done. A few years ago we went from creating vintage-style places that could have existed back in the day to restoring vintage places that existed. It was a graduation in that, rather than building sets that looked like old places, we went to saving old places. That was more gratifying to us and more rewarding to the city we’re in.”

The 1933 Group’s headquarters is located in a former church in Pasadena. He found the space when the Burbank facility the company occupied for 14 years was due to be demolished. The new headquarters would be used not only for work, but also to store some of his vintage cars. “I came across this little church that was for sale because the preacher had died and his kids didn’t want to continue,” says Green. “It was on the market for quite a while, and luckily, because I am a creative businessperson, I love repurposing things like a church as a nightclub or a home.

“I’ve always loved anything interesting like that. It has great energy, better than a mortuary for sure,” he says with a laugh. “I turned it into my private space, where I get my work done and keep my favorite cars. When I came to L.A. in 1980, you still had a lot of great ’40s and ’50s cars on the road here. That added to the whole set-like atmosphere of L.A.”

Aside from his design work with the 1933 Group, Green’s proudest achievement has been producing and promoting The Race of Gentlemen, which he describes as an annual “automotive carnival” on Pismo Beach that featured a drag race; the event had a four-year run before ending last year.

His favorite architectural design project is the Highland Park Bowl, housed in a structure originally built in 1927. The Prohibition-era bowling alley earned the 1933 Group an award from the Highland Park Heritage Trust for its massive restoration after decades as the decrepit punk-music venue Mr. T’s Bowl. “Mr. T’s was a very dark, ugly-feeling space. You had no idea there was this beautiful world hidden behind dropped ceilings, curtains and walls,” says Green. “You have no idea how rewarding it is to show how beautiful it was, and as popular as it was in 1927. That’s one of the hardest things to do — dream of reopening old things, but finding it doesn’t always work because our lifestyles have changed. Sometimes they fail because of that, but fortunately the bowling alley concept continues to live on and thrive.”

The Formosa Café is approaching its big relaunch this spring, with the Tail o’ the Pup claiming Green’s attention after that. He acquired the famous stand shaped like a giant fiberglass hot dog from the Van Nuys–based Valley Relics Museum, where it had been in storage since shortly after its 2005 demise. Owning one of the iconic buildings he first fell in love with on arriving here is exciting, Green says, but the restoration will be hard work. Its future location is still to be decided.

“It won’t be easy. Nothing’s easy!” he says with a smile. “The dog has to be connected to a building. It was connected to a small building, and we hope to incorporate a larger outside patio and beer garden. It’ll be just as difficult as all of them are, and will likely be a year-and-a-half before it’s functional — planning, architecture and permitting before you can start construction.

“But that’s okay. I’ve always had the goal to create something that doesn’t exist and takes people out of their daily life. They crave a day of escapism.” 



After soaring to record heights last year — beyond even the Great Recession peak — the metro Los Angeles housing market began cooling off last summer, according
  to the real-estate database website Zillow. But Pasadena buyers shouldn’t get too excited, because the area is quite desirable and prices are still hefty. Zillow reports that the city’s median home price is $879,000, still up 4.7 percent over the same period last year.

But there is good news for prospective homeowners — there’s simply more out there. Around the country, inventory increased 3 percent over last year, the first such rise since 2014. And buyers willing to add some sweat equity to their mortgage package might find some tasty deals to be had.

What you get for…


HOW MUCH:  $500,000

WHERE:  80 N. Raymond, #112, Pasadena

WHAT YOU GET:  Studio with one bath

SIZE:  545 square feet


This corner studio may be cozy, but it obeys the first law of real estate: Location, location, location. It puts you in busy Old Pasadena, mere steps from the Levitt Pavilion of Performing Arts, the Metro Gold Line, Armory Center for the Arts and a flurry of cool shops, bars and restaurants. Indeed, this 1996 condo complex has been part of the downtown revival bringing buyers back from the suburbs, closer to numerous amenities. Even better, the studio has been completely remodeled, and its modest size is enhanced by huge windows on two sides, which flood the space with light. The one-bath unit has stackable laundry machines, granite counters, central air, a balcony, recessed lighting and one parking space (you’ll need it). The monthly $297 homeowners’ association dues covers earthquake insurance, security, hot water and more. A pied-à-terre, anyone?

CONTACT: Luka Mihovilovic, United Real Estate Los Angeles, (626) 616-0457

Under $1 million

HOW MUCH:  $949,000

WHERE:  4831 Mt. Royal Dr., Eagle Rock

WHAT YOU GET:  Three beds, two baths

SIZE:  1,340 square feet


This Spanish Mission-style home may need some help with curb appeal, but it has something else to compensate: spectacular views and light through an entire wall of windows overlooking the Griffith Observatory and city lights from Glendale to Century City. Built in 1974, the home was recently renovated, with new bathrooms, kitchen with quartz countertops, recessed lighting and flooring. There’s also a sunset-friendly balcony that stretches from a bedroom through the living room, central air, a two-car garage off the kitchen and a sizable 16,950-square-foot lot, which includes an adjacent lot, so no one can build on it and block your view.

CONTACT: Suzi Dunkel-Soto, Keller Williams Realty/Arcadia, (626) 386-7888


HOW MUCH:  $2,395,000

WHERE:  5026 Castle Rd., La Cañada Flintridge

WHAT YOU GET:  Three beds, 2.75 baths

SIZE:  3,362 square feet


This Country French Revival estate was completed in 1932 for public-school teacher Francis Brown McCollum and his French-born second wife, Yvonne, to make her feel at home. Yvonne was also a public-school teacher, but the $3,000 building cost (under $300,000 in current dollars) was within their means. The first things that strike you are the mature fruit trees and other landscaping on the nearly one-acre plot and the generous use of stone throughout the home. There are several private patios (on the roof, under a trellis), a formal living room with views of the pool, a formal dining room with a fireplace and a family room with a balcony overlooking the front gardens, a stone fireplace and a built-in desk. The lower level has a guest room with a separate entrance. Other perks: a wraparound driveway and an attached two-car garage.

CONTACT: Heather Scherbert, Coldwell Banker/La Cañada Flintridge,
(818) 903-3393


HOW MUCH:  $16.8 million

WHERE:  1161 Virginia Rd., San Marino

WHAT YOU GET:  seven bedrooms, seven baths

SIZE:  9,912 square feet


This 1913 Italian Palladian Villa has a stellar pedigree, its design by Robert D. Farquhar, whose architectural projects included the Pentagon and The California Club in downtown L.A. The two-acre-plus estate lies behind a security gate and boasts 16-foot ceilings, a marble foyer, hand-carved marble fireplace mantels, an oval, walnut-paneled library, solarium, elevator and stately living and dining rooms. A circular staircase connects to the second-floor children’s playroom and six bedrooms plus the master suite. The spacious grounds include a pool and spa, a fruit orchard, a north-south tennis court,  a reflecting pond and guest apartment

CONTACT: Yennis Wong, Berkshire Hathaway, (626) 440-5100

When the Smoke Clears

Last year California endured the deadliest fire season ever, with 1.9 million
acres consumed by 8,527 fires. Now insurance companies are witnessing
  an unprecedented number of claims and astronomical payouts. Indeed, last December, one small Northern California company, Merced Property & Causality Co., went bankrupt in the face of some $64 million in claims from the Camp Fire, the state’s single deadliest fire, which devastated the small town of Paradise. As a result, the state’s insurance industry is changing, and California homeowners — even those unaffected by the fires -– should pay attention to what could be coming down the road.

To date, more than $11.4 billion in insured losses have been reported from last November’s Camp and  Woolsey fires (the latter torched 97,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties), according to the California Department of Insurance. The number represents 13,000 insured homes and businesses whose owners lodged more than 46,000 claims, as reported by insurers.

According to U.S. Climate Prediction Center forecasters, almost half of California has an elevated risk for fires, and there are 15.5 million people living in critical areas — including parts of Los Angeles. “Change is on the horizon,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a research analyst with Value Penguin, an analytic research company that tracks the insurance industry. “With the record damage last year, we are already seeing major insurers talking about applying to the Department of Insurance to raise rates. They need their customers to pay higher rates so they, in turn, can pay out the claims.” How much the increase would be depends on many factors, but experts say homeowners can expect to see policy changes in 18 months to three years from now.

Also, insurance companies will likely not renew policyholders considered too high a risk and longtime loyal customers may find themselves unceremoniously dropped. As ruthless as that sounds, insurers “have the right to do that,” says Fitzpatrick. “They can cancel you in 30 days if they [reinspect a property and] see something they don’t like, or even if they don’t want to be in that area anymore,” says Paul Diaz, an independent insurance agent based in Eagle Rock. “That goes for all areas that have homes up against the hills and mountains — La Caňada, La Crescenta, Altadena, Monrovia, Glendora, Sierra Madre. Homeowners in those areas could have their policies dropped and they may have a tough time finding another one.”

The definition of a high-fire-risk area is shifting, and homeowners who previously were in the low-risk category may get a rude awakening, thanks to sophisticated modeling programs — and maybe their neighbors. Using geo-mapping data and satellite imagery, these high-tech wildfire models that predict losses and assess risks consider the home’s natural features, the density of surrounding vegetation, access roads and historical wind patterns. But this evaluator model “also looks beyond the individual home to a designated perimeter around the home that’s maybe 250 yards, a quarter of a mile or greater,” says Joel Laucher, a special consultant at the California Department of Insurance. “People are used to insurers just looking at their own home, but that’s changing,” says Laucher,  adding that even if homeowners do everything they can to reduce risks, they still may get higher premiums or a cancellation because of their neighbors’ houses and/or the surrounding community. The 2018 fires taught insurers that, according to Laucher, “mitigating fire risk is a community effort.”

In the past, insurance carriers lumped homeowners together in zip codes and city boundaries. Now, insurers realize that risk can change dramatically within those distinct areas; risks are being pinpointed today on a near-granular level. Think about your zip code, says Laucher. “Some areas are more of a flatland, others are hilly. Are fire trucks going to have it easy to get to the house? What happens if that big tree falls over and blocks access? These are questions being asked.”

With all these changes in the insurance industry, what can — and should — homeowners do? Just as temblors prompt homeowners to reassess their earthquake preparedness, wildfires should nudge people “to inspect their insurance policies and update if necessary,” says Mel Cohen, an independent insurance agent in Pasadena in business since the 1970s. “You as a homeowner need to know what the rebuilding costs will be to adequately replace your home. So many people think, ‘Oh, I’m covered,’ but maybe that policy is 15 years old and what they have is not enough to cover rebuilding costs in this current climate.”

Estimated replacement costs have been moving upward, but only recently have they skyrocketed. “In 1977, we used $32 per square foot as the baseline number to rebuild a like-kind quality structure,” says Cohen. “But as of the Station Fire in 2016, that number went up to $200 per square foot. And now with these last fires, we think that number should be about $300 per square foot to cover construction costs.” And Cohen’s estimations may be on the low side; Laucher has heard of locations with estimates of $700 or $800 per square foot. Homeowners who want a second opinion can hire a professional appraiser — just make sure your insurer will accept that estimate. Check to see that your policy adequately covers personal property inside the house; expensive jewelry, artwork, antiques may need additional coverage. Finally, make sure you have coverage for living expenses if your home needs to be rebuilt.

If Your Policy Gets Dropped

Homeowners who receive a cancellation notice will have 45 days to find replacement coverage. But don’t worry yet; California is known as a competitive market when it comes to insurance. “Just because one insurer rejects you, doesn’t mean they all will,” says Fitzpatrick. Check out the listing of statewide insurance carriers on the California Department of Insurance website (, which also has numerous interactive tools to help you navigate the process. Fitzpatrick also suggests reaching out to independent agents who represent a variety of carriers.

Shopping around could be advisable for everyone, not just those who have been dropped. “There can be benefits to being a loyal customer, but sometimes a new policy may be cheaper,” says Fitzpatrick. “Be sure you’re taking advantage of all the available discounts such as smart devices, damage mitigation, etc. Check and see if you quality for a premium discount, too.”

If all fails, the California Fair Plan offers basic private coverage to homeowners; supplemental policies to provide liability protection can also be purchased to wrap around bare-bones coverage. Remember, you have an ally in the California Department of Insurance, which can provide assistance and resources.

Similar turbulence around insurance rates and coverage is being played out in other parts of the country facing their own natural disasters. “So much of insurer analysis, the risks vs. the payouts, is dependent on local vulnerabilities,” says Fitzpatrick. “You see the same thing happening in hurricane-vulnerable areas of the East Coast, for example. Natural disasters are a reality we are all facing these days.”

Turtle Whacks

The 5:30 a.m. knock on the door on Nov. 9, 2018, wakened Malibu residents Susan Tellem and husband Marshall Thompson abruptly. “Get out, pack up and get out,” their neighbor told them. “The fire is almost here.”

The couple raced out of their 1978 home and scoured their 1.5-acre property to pack up as many sulcatas, box turtles and Russian tortoises as they could. In addition to day jobs, the couple operates the American Tortoise Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues and adopts out turtles and tortoises worldwide ( Started in 1990, the nonprofit has helped find suitable homes for more than 4,000 shelled critters and care for the unadoptable ones.

As fate would have it, the couple had not unpacked their personal go-bags from a previous evacuation only a few weeks prior. Wrangling the animals proved difficult; Tellem and Thompson gathered up about half of their charges, about 50 turtles and tortoises from the sanctuary and hospital treatment building. They filled the turtle pond, placed all the captured animals (including three cats) into their two cars and sped off.

After driving to Zuma Beach and sleeping with their menagerie in their cars that night, the couple learned their house and sanctuary — along with 15 other homes on their street — did not make it. “We were prepared for the loss when we went back,” she says. “But it was still very hard to see everything gone.” Amazingly, though, almost all the critters left behind — turtles, tortoises and two roosters — survived.

On paper, Tellem and Thompson were fire-ready; brush was amply cut back from their home and other structures. They used fire-resistant cement-board siding and fireproof paint on their house, deck and sanctuary housing. “The fire department loved us because we were on top of it all,” says Tellem. None of that mattered, however, against 3,000-degree heat that melted cages and plastic tubs.

The couple is in the process of rebuilding; the sanctuary is back in working order with turtles and tortoises wandering once again in their familiar habitat. A recent fundraiser is helping to support the onsite hospital which was completely destroyed. The pond has been covered with chain link to keep away raccoons; the previous electric fence burnt and there is currently no electricity.

The rescue operation has good insurance through AARP, and Tellem says she’s learned so much already about the insurance process through this whole ordeal. Her advice to homeowners everywhere: Look at your policy every year and update it. Get the lowest deductible limits that you can afford. If possible, ask someone to look at your property and provide a second opinion if you have any doubts about what level of coverage you should have. Make sure you have a detailed inventory of your home’s assets in writing or on video. “Document every phone call and email contact you have with your insurer,” she says. “Record date, the time, who you spoke to and what you talked about. It’s critical to keep good records.”

The couple is also considering installing other mitigation equipment, including an outdoor sprinkler system with heat sensors that release flame retardants in the event of a wildfire.

Today, Tellem and Thompson are renting a house about 10 minutes from their property. When Tellem goes to feed and water the critters, she passes by charred rubble where a statue of St. Francis stood for many years. The statue was there after the fire, and Tellem credits the saint for watching over the turtles the couple could not find the morning they evacuated. “St. Francis protected the animals we couldn’t catch,” she says.

Sadly, that property, like so many other homeowners in the fire-ravaged landscape, has recently been targeted by thieves. “We have had to put locks on everything, but I never imagined that someone would steal St. Francis,” Tellem says about a final gut-wrenching loss from this fire. “That truly breaks my heart.”


Celebrating a Frozen February

In keeping with last month’s theme of official National Days celebrating weird stuff, I took a look at the February calendar to help me figure out what to cook this month. (Yeah, I make a monthly menu…it’s a chef thing.) I have always followed a seasonal and market guide, but using the National Day Calendar as inspiration is a first, and I feel like I have struck inspirational gold.   

Besides putting obscure foods (or those I gave up on long ago) back into my repertoire (such as Tater Tot Day — Feb. 20, Banana Bread Day — Feb. 23 and the [oddly specific] Crab Stuffed Flounder Day — Feb. 18), this calendar also allows me to combine food and nonfood observances for the betterment of mankind. For instance, Feb. 16 is both National Almond Day and National Do a Grouch a Favor Day. (I’m not making any of this up.) So, if you’re feeling generous, you can make the world better by presenting your grouch with a delightful almond cookie (or have him over for trout amandine). Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day, but also National Organ Donor, Ferris Wheel and Cream-Filled Chocolates Day. But, to be clear, when I am up on that Ferris wheel on Valentine’s Day, I’d better be presented with a box of cream-filled chocolates, and not a donated organ.

Feb. 15 is both Singles Awareness Day and No One Eats Alone Day, which I assumed were combined to cancel each other out, until I read their official websites. They explain that Singles Awareness Day champions the benefits of being single on the day after Valentine’s Day — a comfort to depressed singles the world over who spent Valentine’s Day watching everyone else donate organs to each other on Ferris wheels. However, No One Eats Alone Day, as it turns out, is about kids being nice to each other in the lunchroom, which I like and therefore will not mock. 

I assumed Cherry Pie Day was related to George Washington’s birthday, but it falls on Feb. 20, which is neither George Washington’s real nor fake birthday. He was born on Feb. 11, 1731, but the Julian calendar was used at that time. When Britain switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, his birthday moved 1 year and 11 days, to Feb, 22, 1732. I spent several hours in a deep dive into this historical calendar switch, which is fascinating. (But probably only to me, so I’ll spare you the details.) Also, the cherry tree story is a lie. 

Regardless, cherry pie will definitely be on my list of things to bake this month, because I love cherries, pies and George Washington. I never use canned cherries or cherry pie filling. I cannot abide the corn-syrupy gel goop. I will pit real, fresh cherries for this pie when they are in season (not in February) or buy them whole and fresh-frozen, then flavor them with something delightfully subtle, like cardamom, lemon zest and a dash of orange-flower water. 

Nonfood-related days I’m looking forward to this month include Feb. 11 — Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk Day — on which I’m going to be super positive, always look on the bright side and try not to serve anyone a glass of milk, just in case. I’m also super psyched for Feb. 28, which is National Public Sleeping Day, encouraging naps nationwide, as if I needed an excuse.

But my favorite day this month is right out of the gate, on Feb. 1, and it is a day I will most definitely be celebrating culinarily. This is the day that celebrates my favorite dessert to both make and eat — baked Alaska. 

Baked Alaska was created at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City, which opened in the early 1800s and is still open today. (And though it claims to be the oldest restaurant in New York, it has not been operating continuously, as there was a short break in service for about 70 years. Also, another Delmonico’s creation was stretching the truth.)  In addition to baked Alaska, this iconic restaurant originated several classic dishes, including eggs Benedict and the Delmonico steak, which was originally two hearts of boneless ribeye tied together with twine, creating a fattier, more tender version of the filet mignon. Today, however, the Delmonico steak is usually a New York strip.

The baked Alaska, initially named “Alaska-Florida” because of its contrasting temperatures, was first served in 1867 to celebrate our purchase of Alaska from Russia. It consists of a walnut sponge topped with banana ice cream, encased in meringue with an apricot compote on the side.  The entire concoction was then browned under a broiler, the meringue acting to insulate the ice cream and prevent it from melting.

Delmonico’s was a happening place, and this dessert was the epitome of Gilded Age dining, enjoyed by everyone who was anyone, including all the Rockefellers, Samuel Clemens and Charles Dickens. Today Delmonico’s serves the original version, which delighted me but horrified my youngest, as she finds bananas revolting. It is her only character defect. 

I have made this dessert in more variations than I can count. I have served it in every restaurant where I have worked, and included it in every class I ever taught. It can be large and presented to the whole table, or in cute individual portions. It can be drenched in rum and lit aflame tableside, or browned in the kitchen with a torch or under the broiler. I have used all sorts of cakes, brownies and cookies as a base for the rest of the ingredients. The key is to choose something stable that can structurally support the rest of the ensemble. The ice cream can be of any flavor, and I have often used sorbet or sherbet. Some of my favorite flavor combinations include a gingerbread or gingersnap base with eggnog; apple or orange ice cream; brownie base with peppermint or coffee ice cream; or lemon cookie — or even lemon bar — base with tart lemon sorbet. I’m sure you can come up with your own personal favorite. (An easy version includes a graham cracker base with chocolate ice cream, which takes on a s’mores effect when the marshmallow-esque meringue is torched. Magnifique!

The meringue that insulates the ice cream is the tricky part, although after a few tries you’ll find it easy peasy. Most recipes call for the Italian meringue style, which requires cooking sugar syrup to a precise temperature before whisking it into a meringue. I have learned over the years, however, that a Swiss-style meringue is easier, less finicky and faster. Swiss meringue consists of egg whites and sugar combined in a bowl over a bain-marie (simmering water bath), stirred until the sugar dissolves, then whisked into stiff peaks. This meringue is then piped or plopped and spread over the ice cream and cookie, completely concealing it all in a soft, fluffy snowball.

The final step is to brown the Alaska, which I usually do with a propane torch (a pastry chef’s best friend). It can also be popped quickly under a broiler. All of the steps, minus the torching, can be done in advance and the work-in-progress stored in the freezer until the time comes for you to impress your guests with the flame. But don’t wait for guests to make an Alaska. Make it for yourself. If this article is about anything (which I admit is sometimes questionable), it is about year-round celebrating.

Serves 6

This recipe is for the individual-style Alaska, which I prefer. You can, however, bring all these instructions up a notch and assemble it on a 6-to-8-inch cake or cookie base. All of the instructions still apply.


6 cookies (2 to 3 inches) or small slices of
   cake. (The flavor is up to you. Bake them
   yourself or buy ready-made.)

6 scoops of ice cream or sorbet, well frozen.
   (Again, the flavor is up to you.)

4 egg whites (or ½ cup)

¾ cup granulated sugar

Pinch of sea salt


1. Place cookies or cake slices on a baking tray, well spaced. Top each with a generous scoop of ice cream. Try to give the ice cream a flat bottom, so that it will sit securely on the base. Place these into the freezer until very firm. (This step takes several hours; a day ahead is ideal.)

2. Combine the egg whites, sugar and salt in a heatproof mixing bowl, ideally the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Place over a pot of simmering water and stir, gently but continuously, until the mixture is warm and the sugar has dissolved, about 2 minutes. You will know the sugar is dissolved when you touch the mixture and can no longer feel the sugar crystals between your fingers. Immediately remove the egg mixture from the heat and whip it on high speed until it reaches stiff, shiny peaks. Spreading is easier if the meringue is stiff but still a little warm.

3. Pipe or spread the meringue around each ice-cream ball and base. There must be no holes whatsoever. If ice cream is not completely covered it will melt and leak during the browning stage. Best to work with one ice cream/base at a time, pulling it out of the freezer to cover with meringue, then popping it back in when complete. The meringue-covered ice cream can stay in the freezer like this for several hours or overnight.

4. Final preparation requires browning the meringue. If you have a torch, simply pass it across the meringue quickly and evenly until it is browned. (Be sure to do this away from any parchment paper or doilies that might be lying around — another tip brought to you by “learning the hard way.”) To brown in a broiler, preheat the oven, then pop in the entire tray directly from the freezer. (Again, be sure this tray is ovenproof.)

Once browned, the Alaskas must be served immediately. Transfer each one to a serving plate, decorated with sauce or garnish of your choice. You may also ignite your Alaska tableside by sprinkling with a high-proof alcohol and lighting with a match and dramatic flair. When you serve your Alaska, be prepared for a standing ovation. Or just stand and clap for yourself.

Unusual Dining Experiences

Virtually any local foodie can tell you that SoCal has been in the midst of a dynamic and diverse dining boom in recent years. Indeed, I am not the only observer who is happy to declare the region the world’s currently reigning epicenter of food and dining. It’s a bold claim, but it’s not difficult to defend. From the highly conceptual, otherworldly tasting menu at Vespertine in Culver City to the tooth-pick lamb at Chengdu Taste in Alhambra, restaurants are combining  attention to fresh, quality ingredients with an openness to experimentation bridging cultural traditions and techniques.

The possibilities seem endless.

Pasadena and its environs arrived somewhat belatedly to this raucous party, but there are now plenty of interesting options.  From chef-centric innovation to authentic and obscure ethnic preparations, we have a wide variety of local culinary choices. But what may still go unnoticed are offbeat dining experiences that can only be had in our area and exist quite apart from the relative tumult of the restaurant scene.   

You may need the right contacts and connections or just a good sense of timing, but the following culinary adventures can only be found right here in Arroyoland:


The Huntington’s Chinese Garden

One weekday morning a while back, my daughter and I were musing over breakfast possibilities. An enthusiast of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (where I maintain a basic membership), she had already expressed interest in visiting going posted her interest in visiting. Having recently discovered the Huntington’s newly renovated dining options, I suggested we try the dim sum place at the Chinese Garden. By then, the Huntington’s dining program had been redesigned and relaunched by Border Grill’s Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken in conjunction with Kajsa Alger, Feniger’s collaborator in the now-defunct Mud Hen Tavern and Blue Window. Freshwater specifically showcases Alger’s influence.

Arriving about 11 a.m., we strolled past the stately gallery buildings and arrived at Freshwater Dumpling and Noodle just as it was opening at 11:30. (Reservations are not accepted.) We ordered chicken-chive dumplings in broth, soothing chicken congee and a bowl of Hunan cumin-beef noodles at the small enclosed stand and then found a table overlooking the small placid lake, latticed with pale white bridges and the swooping roofs of copper-tiled pavilions. From the blooming lotuses to the bordering sweep of willow trees, the surrounds are landscaped as luxuriously as the rest of this famous, expansive former estate. More important, we noted that we were completely alone. A stillness settled over the lake as we unwrapped our chopsticks and marveled at our good fortune. We had the dining pavilion and patio on the lake completely to ourselves as we sampled our delicious selections.

Granted, it was an otherwise random weekday morning before any lunch rush. On weekends and holidays, this is a wildly popular spot where you can often expect to wait 20 minutes to order and find a table (though the food arrives swiftly). If you have a spare weekday morning, plan to arrive first thing and you just might experience a moment of idyllic dining solitude that can’t be found anywhere else.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Freshwater Dumpling and Noodle House hours are 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Call (626) 405-2100 or visit


Descanso Gardens

Arroyoland is blessed with a profusion of lovely public gardens and parklands beyond the Huntington. From The Arboretum in Arcadia to Eaton Canyon to Descanso Gardens in La Caňada Flintridge, we have an impressive array of options for communing with nature. At Descanso, the onsite restaurant Maple offers culinary exploration along with a survey of the gardens’ flora in a recently renovated Craftsman farmhouse-style space.   

Part of the Patina Group portfolio, Maple is typically open only for weekend brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner service is occasional, with specially devised menus crafted throughout the year to correspond to seasonal garden displays and holidays, such as January’s annual Camellia Wine Dinner coinciding with the blossoming of Descanso’s signature blooms. The event featured a six-course dinner with custom wine pairings, and this month, Maple will host a Valentine’s Day dinner of wagyu beef and Maine lobster tail, among other entrees, from 5 to 9 p.m., and a Spring Blooms Wine Dinner on March 22. Additional upcoming dinners will be announced the website.

I attended a dinner celebrating Descanso’s Enchanted Forest of Light during the Christmas holiday season. Patina principal and San Marino resident Chef Joachim Splichal manned the stoves himself with Chef Philip Mack and recommended the whisky short rib entree, which was predictably velvety and delicious. Maple offers reliably imaginative menus in a beautiful natural refuge.

Descanso Gardens is located at 1418 Descanso Dr., La Caňada Flintridge.

Call (818) 949-4200 or visit


California Institute of Technology

A mere stroll away from the bustling laboratories at one of the world’s great research universities, The Athenaeum is the private dining club at the Caltech in Pasadena. You have to be a faculty member, employee, student or alum to obtain membership. If you don’t qualify and are otherwise unlikely to be granted admission as a freshman anytime soon, find some members and implore them to escort you as a guest to the prime-rib buffet, a Wednesday evening institution at the elegant and storied dining room.

The history of the rib buffet tradition now seems obscure. General Manager Marisu Jimenez said in an email, “I have been at the club for 25 years and the buffet has been at the club before my time. I do not know, unfortunately, how the prime rib night got started.” Chef Kevin Issacson, who has been at “The Ath” for the last 13 years, provides novelty to the well-worn Wednesday tradition while doing an admirable job of keeping all the regular lunch and dinner menus fresh.

The buffet is lavish. Besides the carving station and changing selection of side dishes and other entrees, there is a generous selection of salads and cheese plates, as well as a raw bar of fresh oysters, shrimp and crab legs. A sushi station features a selection of nigiri, rolls and sashimi as well as seaweed salad. A chef’s specialty station changes weekly and might feature anything from customized risotto to pasta or mashed potatoes. The dessert bar includes a variety of pastries, cakes and pies as well as a bananas Foster station, where the dish is prepared to order, flambéed, of course.

Exclusive? Yes.

An utterly unique local experience? Yes.

Worth the trouble of stalking a hapless local scientist?  Again, yes!

The Athenaeum is located at 551 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 395-8200 or




Longtime observers of the local restaurant scene may recall the impressive run of Chef Onil Chibás at Elements and Elements Kitchen, a seven-year venture that pioneered true chef-centric cuisine next door to the Pasadena Playhouse, ultimately leading to Chibas’ recent experiment in catering and events. Last June, Chibas opened Deluxe 1717 on Washington Boulevard in Pasadena with the intention of maintaining his booming catering operations, while exploring the possibility of hosting or curating culinary events in the location’s storefront dining room and patio area.   

“I don’t want to do a pop-up every month,” says Chibas, who lives in Garfield Heights. “It’s too much work.” What then?

“I’ve always had the idea for a cookbook club. This is supposed to be … my [culinary] home!” The dining room accommodates 16 guests and, with the ample kitchen in back, the space offers all sorts of creative possibilities. “I didn’t want it to be a restaurant. It’s me cooking… maybe four or five courses.” Chibas ‘philosophy? “I tend to like rustic or homey fare presented elegantly. I call it Grandma Chic!”.

When can we join him at the table?

“I don’t know. Whenever I feel like it. It’s very capricious.”   

So stay tuned to his website or pitch an idea yourself. The point is that one of the very best chefs in town has a test kitchen and dining room that promise some very unusual culinary moments.

Deluxe 1717 is located at 1717 Washington Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 818-3963 or visit  

A Bibliophile’s Paradise

How is a bibliophile made? How is it that a seemingly reasonable person decides to surround himself/herself with books, beautiful books that clutter whatever space is available as though it’s reasonable to hoard books because of, what really? That books might vanish like extinct birds or that they need good homes and no one will care for them; or that there aren’t enough well-heeled institutions, like the Huntington Library, that house fantastically rare books to visit? No, it’s more than that. To have that particular book of your desire is motivation enough to spend lavishly to own a literary art object

I am a bibliophile, though constrained by having a smallish house with children.  (Plans are afoot for an office in the backyard that will house a library.) I lust for books that I don’t have the time to read, I haunt library book sales hoping beyond reason that I’ll come across a signed first edition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with a beautiful dust jacket. The fact is, every good thing in my life has come from my passion for reading — my children, my wife, my house, my damn dog…all of it.  I owe everything to the writing and reading gods.

I live in Pasadena because it’s a writers’ town with many wonderful writers, and writers as a species are drawn to bookstores. I make my Wednesday rounds visiting many of them. I stop by Century Books on Green Street, then walk up to Colorado Boulevard for a stop at Book Alley to browse its lush and eclectic offerings, then over to Comics Factory to buy a few comics and chat with my friends; then from there I’m on to Vroman’s Bookstore, California’s oldest bookstore, to write at Jones Coffee.

Life in Pasadena has been great for a bibliophile, but then life recently became exponentially better: When driving in Old Pasadena, I noticed a new bookstore under construction on Union Street.  I was delighted but skeptical, fearing that somehow I misread the signage. Until then I didn’t believe our city could support another bookstore, but that was my lack of imagination. Even I had begun to succumb to the idea that a passion for physical books was an anachronistic fetish.

But it was true: A new bookstore that specialized in very rare books, a kind of Rolls-Royce dealership for the upscale literary devotee, was opening and my heart raced. More good luck: An assignment came my way to cover the launch of Whitmore Rare Books and I happily accepted — an early Christmas present. Soon after came an invite to the opening reception. Whitmore Rare Books is a beautiful light-filled space with bookshelves made of gorgeous woods that stretch to the ceiling.  The books hang like jewels behind glass, tantalizing bibliophiles of means and those who aren’t but might have an even greater lust for the book of their dreams.

I didn’t get a chance to spend much time talking to owner Dan Whitmore that night, so we met soon after for coffee at Intelligentsia Café near his shop. I couldn’t help doing what one does in the film capital of the world — Dan’s a handsome guy who resembles Chris Pine, has a fine sense of humor and seems well-rested for a man with a demanding business and four young boys at home. He’s a Pasadena native who completed a B.A. in economics from Middlebury College in Vermont before earning his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He and Darinka Whitmore, his wife and art director, run Whitmore Rare Books with Miranda Garno Nesler, who serves as the specialist in women’s history and works with institutional clients. She has a Ph.D. in literature and gender studies from Vanderbilt University.

Dan Whitmore is a passionate lover of books as objects of value, aesthetically as well as financially. He turned from life as a lawyer just as he was making serious lawyer money because he couldn’t see himself living the lawyer’s life; it just wasn’t for him and, as a colleague said, “If you can pay your bills you should do what you want.”  Dan knew what he wanted and that was a life in the world of rare books

Dan told me of his epiphany, that moment of awakening that revealed his life’s work. While out for a bike ride, he passed a guy on the curb selling what looked to be various kinds of garage-sale junk, but he caught a glimpse of a book that intrigued him. He stopped and saw that it was Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, one of Dan’s favorite novels. He bought it and, when he examined it later, was delighted to discover it was a first edition…a first edition that didn’t have a dust jacket and that was one of a huge print run because Hemingway was one of the world’s most popular writers at the time. That particular book wasn’t worth much but the book bug bit Dan. Working in the field of rare books would be central to his life. He earns his living understanding the market for rare books of great value, while contending with the expenses of travel, catalogs and outfitting a beautiful space to showcase wonderful and rare books. When he talks of helping to foil the theft of an extremely valuable book, he’s transported, just as when he discusses the papers of an important poet he’s been commissioned to handle. Or when he looks at a writer’s signature on a signed copy: A broken signature is a dead giveaway that that signature is forged to drive up the value of that book.

As a novelist I feel fortunate to have been paid for my books. Dan’s secondary market sales are so far removed from those of us who create books, but it’s part of the ecosystem of how books of great value are preserved. It’s certainly about money, but the commerce for rare books — the passion to own these objects that contain all the permutations of narratives of the human experience — helps to preserve them.

It comes down to this: My heart races walking into Whitmore Rare Books in a way that doesn’t happen walking into the Tesla dealer on Colorado. We’ve come so far technologically, but I’m grateful we can keep a part of our literary past with us. 

Whitmore Rare Books is located at 121 E. Union St., Pasadena. Call (626) 714-7720 or visit…Jervey Tervalon is an award-winning poet, screenwriter and author of six novels, including his latest, All the Trouble You Need: A Novel (Atria Books; 2018). He lives in Altadena with his wife and two daughters.

There is Nothing Finer than an Altadena Diner

Since Altadena still has the allure of an old-timey town, it’s no surprise that the diner mentality is expanding here. The Little Red Hen has been around over 50 years. Fox’s was recently purchased and upgraded (by the folks who own Cindy’s Diner in Eagle Rock), maintaining its 66-year legacy, and the stalwart 92-year-old Millie’s Diner in Silver Lake has added a second location nearby in Pasadena. Apparently, the Alta-diners (and their diner neighbor) are making quite a statement.

The American diner is an institution. The term “diner” referred to a dining car when railroads had their own onboard restaurants. Downtown Los Angeles’ Pacific Dining Car, which opened in 1921, is a perfect example of one that isn’t going anywhere. But the origins of the diner can be traced to Walter Scott, a Rhode Island pressman who repurposed a horse-pulled wagon and parked it outside the Providence Journal, where he sold sandwiches, coffee, pies and eggs to the newspaper’s night owls. For Scott, it was what today we call a side hustle — a second job to help pay the bills. By 1872 running his wagon was a full-time job, thus birthing the American diner (and eventually the American Diner Museum in Scott’s hometown of Providence). Fifteen years later, in 1887, Altadena launched as a subdivision, though diners and people would take time to populate the foothill town.

Technically, diners were small prefabricated roadside buildings, where cheap prepared food was served in a fast, convenient way. Diners flourished until the mid-1950s when competition in the form of chain restaurants like Denny’s, IHOP and Sambo’s spread across the country. According to, a revival of diners began in the late 1970s. The few remaining diner builders began to fabricate restaurants that were new but old-style — retro-looking diners specifically evoking a 1950s feel. Johnny Rockets is a good example. “The renewed interest in diners can be attributed to Americans looking backwards for inspiration and the values of yesterday in a time of moral and economic uncertainty,” the website says. And nothing says consistency and comfort like the tried-and-true diner, a neighborhood place where you always know who’s there and what’s being served. Like the Cheers theme song, we all want to go to a place where everyone knows our name.

Fox’s Restaurant has been a landmark in Altadena since 1955 when it was opened by Paul and Edie Fox. The physical building was moved from a different location in 1948 to its present place at 2352 N. Lake Ave. Previously it had been a private home, a pet store, a real estate office and even a restaurant before Paul and Edie took it over. In 1967 the Foxes’ son, Ken, bought the restaurant and continued the family business for another 50 years. When Ken decided to sell in 2017, he found another family of restaurateurs, husband-and-wife chefs Paul Rosenbluh and Monique King, who helm Cindy’s Diner in Eagle Rock. The couple decided to keep the name Fox’s and maintain its legacy of nearly seven decades. “We’re way up in Altadena, so it’s really a destination,” Rosenbluh tells Arroyo Monthly. The area is woefully underrepresented in terms of new restaurants and Fox’s new chefs have the benefit of an already loyal following who would “roll down the hill,” as Rosenbluh puts it, to visit Cindy’s. Now their commute is a little shorter. And he’s brought the same from-scratch menu items to Fox’s. “It’s really an adorable little place, a slice of Americana, and I wanted to maintain the 1950s feel,” he says.

TRY: the Southern Denver omelet with house-cured pork-butt ham, peppers, jalapeňos, cheddar cheese and house-grilled potatoes.

Just a mile from the Fox is the Hen: The Little Red Hen to be precise, located at 2697 Fair Oaks Ave. It’s been under the same name for 60 years, but 50 years ago the Shay family bought it from the original owner and now it’s one of the oldest black-owned businesses in Altadena. Most customers are familiar with Lonzia Shay, who ran it for many years, although his sister Barbara has since taken it over. “I was 17 when my mother bought Little Red Hen,” Barbara Shay tells Arroyo Monthly. “It’s a rarity for an African-American family to be doing this for 50 years.” Throughout the decades this spot has remained true to the diner concept: good food served quickly in an unpretentious environment. The Hen is small, comprised mainly of counter stools, and it isn’t retro or even vintage — it’s a unique dyed-in-the-wool place. “Cooking is a way to put my displaced hostility in a pot and mix it up,” Shay tells me with a laugh. “My spin is soulfully delicious recipes,” which include the use of organic food without being preachy about it. In addition to traditional menu items, Shay provides vegetarian and vegan options. She’s also active with her own cooking show, Cuttin’ Up in the Kitchen, through Pasadena Media public access and YouTube.

TRY: Shrimp and cheesy grits étouffée with organic greens.

When Millie’s Cafe first opened its doors in 1926 in Silver Lake, it was one of the area’s few dining establishments. And at the new Millie’s Café, which opened last November at 1399 E. Washington Blvd., business is hopping. Weekend waits are at least 20 minutes and it’s packed inside with a line out the door. Owner Robert Babish bought the Silver Lake location in 2000 and his move to Pasadena was precipitated by loyal customers in the area. “We always give you good service and good food, and that’s why we’re still in business,” he says. They have long used Alta Dena Dairy products, which might seem like a marketing ploy, but it’s not.

TRY: Neptune’s Nest — three scrambled eggs mixed with smoked salmon, cream cheese, salsa, guacamole, scallions, sour cream and sherry.

What Little Red Hen, Fox’s, and Millie’s all have in common is an emphasis on homemade food, generous portions, friendly service and a look and feel that’s both comfortable and unpretentious. Dining out never goes out of style and neither will Altadena diners.

Wine with Wings and other Trends for Oenophiles

Wine’s lineage stretches back over 6,000 years, a particularly long legacy that struck me a few years ago during a visit to the Greek island of Crete.
I recall standing inside the Temple of Knossos, staring down at a 4,000-year old wine-crushing stone. Not much has changed in how grapes are fermented and turned into wine. How we consume said wine is another matter. What wine trends prophesy our collective future libation consumption?

Premium Wine in Cans

Canned wine might seem tedious. After all, wine has been sold in cans since before anyone reading this was born. And who wants the soda-pop sound of a can of wine being opened during your romantic dinner? Though trending, it’s nothing new. The first canned wines began appearing in the mid-1930s, then intermittently disappeared and reappeared again over the decades. The problem was one of acidity eating away at the metal, and the can imparting a metallic taste to the wine, which was cheap bulk quality to begin with. Canning fine wine didn’t take off until recently, when the inner linings of cans stopped transferring off-flavors, canned wine had lost its stigma and premium wine producers started paying attention.

Phil Markert supervises liquor sales for Vons, Albertsons and Pavilions, whose South Pasadena store offers 1,100 different wines. The recently remodeled Vons on Colorado in Pasadena and the Arcadia store both offer more than 2,000 wines, plus a wine cellar, daily wine tastings and a full-service staff. Wine in cans, he says, will not go away any time soon. “This is a trend that is happening in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The biggest driver is a younger consumer who wants packaging that’s more environmentally friendly but also wants convenience,” he says.

And wineries are quickly jumping onboard. “It had become apparent to me that people wanted to be able to include consciously made wines in more areas of their life where bottles are a limiting factor,” Faith Armstrong Foster, owner and winemaker at Sonoma-based Onward and Farmstrong Wines tells Arroyo Monthly. The wines she sells in cans are the same exact vintages she’s been putting in bottles for years; she expanded into canning when she recognized the need for a more portable package, for beach days, hiking, camping, poolside, picnics, movie theaters, etc. “However, this is also offered as my small format, so really anyone who wants a half-bottle option has one. They are light, portable, chill down fast and make wine drinking more accessible,” she says. The most popular wine in cans according to Markert? First, sparkling rosé, whites like pinot gris and sauvignon blanc, then pinot noir.

Leave the cork. Take the can.

Paso Robles as the New Napa

California has the highest number of federally recognized wine-producing regions in the U.S., with 139 American Viticultural Areas. While 46 of California’s 58 counties produce wine, Napa is still considered the state’s wine mecca, although newcomers are muscling in. Chief among them is Paso Robles, situated midway between L.A. and San Francisco. The small city, whose wines are huge in Arroyoland, isn’t new to the wine game; small vineyards date back as far as the 1880s and large-scale vineyards were planted in the 1920s. Currently 63 varietals are in the ground, planted by about 250 wineries; the main focus is on cabernet sauvignon and Rhône wines, like grenache and mourvèdre. “This is a localization trend primarily driven by millennials who want to support local wineries, want to know the history and legacy of the winery, want to know who is making it and what their values are,” says Merkert. Christopher Taranto, a Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance spokesman, says Paso wines offer good value-to-quality ratio, offering highly rated vintages for less than you would pay for those from other better-known regions.

“Paso wine country is still seen as a discovery, which is the paradigm we as wine lovers live in,” Taranto says. “We love discovering something new, then sharing it with family and friends.”

Beyond that, Paso Robles has something millennials want that other wine regions don’t necessarily have — winemakers their own age. You don’t find as many young start-ups in Napa or Sonoma, or even in the less-renowned AVAs Monterey and Santa Barbara. “Paso is exploding with young, talented winemakers who don’t have a lot of money but they do have a passion for wine,” says Peachy Canyon Winery owner Doug Beckett. “The dynamics have changed so much in the last 40 years. It’s in the hands of the younger generation now.”

Drone Delivery

Want your albariño by air? Try a drone delivery.

The very first drones were a byproduct of wartime, and the original UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) were large pilotless planes operated by remote control. These days drones are ubiquitous. Will a drone be able to deliver wine to your door? Yes. Will that be widespread in 2019? Probably
not. Amazon Prime Air has already been testing wine delivery by drone. The Pucari Winery tested drone delivery in 2016 in its home country, the Republic of Moldova. Other companies that have looked into drones include Über, Chipotle, Oscar Meyer, Domino’s Pizza and Southern Comfort.

None of these experiments has materialized as completely viable…yet. “Drone delivery, while seemingly amazing, has a lot of hurdles to overcome before becoming mainstream,” says wine-industry analyst Paul Mabray, CEO of Emetry, whose innovations include using digital data to map consumer behaviors for wine companies. “Regulatory challenges aside, there are still social and economic consequences (predicted and unforeseen) that will inhibit mass usage of what is currently a novelty,” says Mabray. “It sounds great in theory,” he tells Arroyo but adds that pressing issues remain, such as ensuring adult signatures, temperature control, breakage and weight challenges (drones are not built to carry more than 40 pounds). “None are insurmountable, but all add friction to this being a primary delivery category.”

But stay tuned. The day will come when a drone will deliver dolcetto to your door.